Rethinking sport and life

My monthly copy of The Word magazine arrived last weekend. As usual, it is full of interesting articles about music, film and books. This month, however, there is a bit of a sporting flavour. This is provided by an interview with Ed Smith, who has combined a glittering academic career with top-level professional cricket, including playing for England. The interview itself is in epigrammatic form, but a number of Smith’s comments rang true with me when considered in a business context. Here are some excerpts.

Beware Academies — You could take the Platonic or Aristotelian attitude to creating winning sportsmen. The Platonic one is that you have an academy and you tell them how to do it. The Aristotelian one is, let them find out by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. … Sometimes I think that rebranding something as an academy gives it some legitimacy. It gives it none. Too often you get enshrined versions of mediocrity or systematised blandness.

When we think how people learn in organisations, we are often torn between Plato and Aristotle: between the training curriculum and learning on the job. I don’t think Smith’s point is that we should turn our backs on the Academy and embrace enlightened amateurism exclusively, but that we need to think carefully about the outcomes of different types of learning experiences. We also need to consider whether the people in the Academy are actually the right ones.

You have to trick your conscious mind — Bob Dylan said creativity is not a freight train on the tracks. It’s not something you can control. The best thing you can do is not get in the way. Most creative people have a cooperative subconscious. They keep their subconscious and rational minds aligned. The problem is, professionalism wants to understand how that works. You get some young player who’s very inconsistent and try  to make him consistent. …[Y]ou take somebody who is intermittently brilliant and you make them never brilliant.

This is a really perceptive comment about how we nurture brilliance of any kind. Often the hothousing of talent actually flattens it. Just like plants, people become more vigorous when they are subjected to the buffeting of their natural environment. When we take them out of that environment, and isolate them from the wind and rain (in the case of plants) or failure and feedback (in the case of people), we make them weaker rather than stronger. In the end, Smith is probably right that individuals are probably better off managing their own creativity and brilliance. When organisations get involved, they run a real risk of losing the brilliance along with the mystery.

It’s not about passion — Anyone can go around beating their chest; it’s winning that’s so damn hard. … I don’t pay good money to watch a conductor stamp his feet. I pay to listen to good music. The choreographer George Balanchine once said that the more he wanted passion, the more he found himself having to talk about precise, very technical things.

This last sentence is a real gem. So often we see so-called ‘gurus’ or leaders talking about the need for passion, but with very little behind it. Balanchine’s remark is much more useful. People cannot deliver with passion and flair (for the benefit of their clients, the firm or themselves) if they go not have a perfect grasp of the technical details. Some of them will never be able to show that passion anyway, but even so they would still have deep technical competence. That has a value in itself. Passion without command of the detail is worthless.

Unfortunately, the interview is not online, so if you want more you’ll have to buy the magazine. Alternatively, Smith’s recent book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, apparently covers similar ground.

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